I WAS ONLY 19 (THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN)
On the 18th August 1966 a platoon of Australian soldiers patrolling in Long Tan, Vietnam came across some North Vietnamese soldiers and a fire fight ensued. What was to develop would be known as ‘The Battle of Long Tan’. Heavy fighting took place as the Viet Cong soldiers numbers grew and they pinned down and attempted to destroy the Australians. Monsoon rains began to hail down on the men, hampering visibility.
While the Australian force comprised only 108 men, they managed to defeat the approximately 2000 strong Communist force with the assistance of supporting artillery and air strikes. 6 RAR and the other Australian units engaged suffered 18 killed and 24 wounded, making this the most costly Australian battle of the war. At least 245 of the Communist troops were killed in the fighting.
Australian soldiers in Long Tan
It was 48 years later, almost to the day, and I was in Long Tan. Standing where the soldiers would have been standing, imagining what it would have been like for a young 19 year old man to be in a fight for his life.
These days there is not much to see there, pretty much what the Australians would have seen when they arrived all those years back – A lot of rubber trees. We had caught a bus that took roughly two hours from Saigon to reach the coast. We stayed in a town called Vung Tau, which was also the town that the Aussie soldiers had a base and used for rest and recreation when they had a day or two off. About 20 kilometres away is Nui Dat and close by, Long Tan. The Australians wanted to fight the Vietnam War on their own terms and when they arrived they cleared a perimeter around their base in Nui Dat of several kilometres. All locals were evacuated and it was a way of keeping the enemy out.
When we arrived in Vung Tau we made contact with Jim, who was an ex-army veteran that fought in the Vietnam War. A stand up bloke and a good guy. He was to be our tour guide the next day around the old battlefield and other sights in the area. The cost of the tour came down in price as more people came along and was roughly $40 Australian dollars and well worth it. We were picked up at 8 AM from our hotel as we drove to the coast. Jim had loads of stories to tell us, which gave significance to the trip and the areas we were in, he also had pictures of what the areas were like back during the war to give us some perspective. Jim was a member of the Vung Tau Veterans and friends children’s fund (VTVFCF) which is a charity that does fantastic work in the area. They take the money from the tours and help out the kids in the area. They have completed several projects and have rebuilt many Kindergartens and schools around Long Tan and the surrounding areas.
Holes in the boulders caused by shrapnel as we climb up the hill
Our first stop was the Long Hai hill, overlooking Bien Loc beach. The Viet Cong had a strangle hold in this area and it was impossible to get them out, pretty much due to the terrain. It was a steep climb, full of large boulders and plenty of hiding spots. We walked to the top where there is a Buddhist monk living now and a fantastic lookout across the coast and beach below. There was evidence of fighting on the boulders which had been shot and sprayed with bullets.
Our next stop was the Vo Thi Sau Statue in Dat Do. She was a young revolutionary Vietnamese girl who was executed by the French in 1952 aged just 19. She was a local hero and was awarded the title ‘Hero of People’s Armed Forces’. When being executed, she refused the blindfolding stating she would rather admire the motherland’s landscape. Sau has become a symbol of respect and patriotism in Vietnam.
From the statue of Vo Thi Sau, it is only a ten minute drive north to get to the Long Tan memorial. The original Long Tan cross was erected in 1969 by members of D Company of 6 RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) of the Australia Army to salute their fallen mates. After the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of troops it was removed in 1975, but was recovered on top of a local priests grave. The cross was in the Australian War memorial for some time in 2012, but has since been returned to Vietnam. What stands on the site now is a replica and still acts as a sacred place of pilgrimage for Australians.
The erection of the original cross 18 August 1969
When we arrived the place looked very different than it did in photographs because the rubber plantation had been cut down and replanted. The new plants were less than half a meter tall and gave the area a very stark look. We were given roses to be placed on the memorial and I removed my hat out of respect. The memorial is about 100 metres from the road along a tiled area and sits in the middle of the field. It had a very sombre mood as we thought about the men that gave their life for our country. We bowed our heads and Jim the tour guide and digger recited the Ode, while ‘The Last Post’ played in the background (from an iPad his wife brought along)
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
After everyone was given enough time for reflection we moved onto SAS hill, which was the main headquarters for the SAS or Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) Australians in Nui Dat. Where it acted as the “eyes and the ears” of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF). It has since been mined and some of the hill has been removed, but you can still make it out. Not much to see here now other than a field, but I am sure the soldiers that have taken the tour are reminded of their time served for their the country by being here.
SAS Hill (L) As it was during the war and (R) when I visited
The old Australian base airstrip, Luscombe Airfield, is the next stop and can still be made out. At the end of the old airfield is now a school that has been completely rebuilt by the Vung Tau Veterans and friends children’s fund that are running our tour, and a great example of where our tour money is going. The school has been completely rebuilt by them, giving these kids a bit of a head start in life. There are a few kids hanging around and they welcome the attention as we talk and play with them. An aging Vietnamese offered up some cashew nuts and to purchase a small badge as a souvenir for a few dollars. More a donation than anything, but a good keep sake and reminder of the visit.
Luscombe Airfield 1966
Luscombe Airfield can still be easily made out in 2014
On our way to the Long Phuoc tunnels we stopped off at a cashew nut processing factory. The lady workers all seemed to be having fun and enjoyed the visit by some westerners. The tunnels were a good example of the reason why the North Vietnamese were often hard to defeat. There were numerous outposts where they could shoot or deploy some grenades and then disappear back down the tunnels and never be seen again. There is also a small museum that we had a look in. Just one big room really, but a few artifacts left over from the war, like an exploded shell, a machine gun or two and some dioramas of the area.
After a fantastic lunch at a local restaurant (not included in the price of the tour and everyone pays their own way, even the tour operators) we head off to visit the local orphanage run by Buddhist monks. This part of the tour is not compulsory, but offered to people if they would like to visit. The orphanage is very poor and the idea was raised to bring some food to the kids, again not compulsory and there is no pressure, but we felt it was a great idea. The previous tour group had given a big sack of rice and they had plenty for now, so we got them some milk drinks instead. We had hundreds of little packs of fresh and chocolate milk to give the kids. They loved it, kids ranging in age from a few days old up to school age were there when we visited and loved having us as visitors and also the presents. I did not see a frown on any of there faces and were all laughing and having a great time. A very humbling experience.
Bong Lai Orphanage
Overall it was a great day and I would recommend anyone interested in Australian history to visit the battlefield and take the tour. It really does hit home how lucky I am that I have never been in a war and thankful for the Australian soldiers who went to Vietnam at the order of the government and fight for our country. I have much respect for each and every one of them. If you are interested in the tour, you can contact them through their website here.
For the record, they have not asked me to write this article and they don’t even know I am writing it and I am not getting paid for it. It is just the least I can do to help out a charity doing some great work for poor and disadvantaged kids.
For more information on the battle of Long Tan here are some interesting links I found while researching.
Thanks to Rodney Knabster and Steve Jory for some of the images as well.